The Gundam series is a science fiction franchise, created by Sunrise, featuring humanoid combat machines known as “mobile suits”, with the main mobile suits usually having the word “Gundam” in its name.
The first entry of in the franchise, known as Mobile Suit Gundam or Gundam 0079, was directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino in 1979 and is credited with creating the “Real Robot” genre of mecha anime. Real Robot shows usually take place in a militaristic setting and the machines utilize scaled up human weapons such as rifles or missiles. The machines also require frequent maintenance and may malfunction. Examples of real robots outside of the Gundam franchise include the Variable Fighters from Macross, Knightmare Frames from Code Geass and the Arm Slaves from Full Metal Panic.
Aside from the highly successful anime series in the franchise, Gundam has also been released into a variety of media, such as movies, manga and video games. Of particular note is the rise of Gundam plastic models or Gunpla for short. These models were extremely popular in Japan and neighboring Asian countries such as China and Korea, and demonstrated increased popularity in the West during the 1990s.
The franchise is split into several timelines and universes, with the Universal Century (UC) calendar being the timeline that has the most development and story lines. This part will focus exclusively on the UC timeline, and subsequent parts will focus on the other continuities.
Universal Century – the first and most well-established timeline, where a majority of the franchise occurs. Most of the series in the UC timeline is directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, except for certain OVAs.
1) Mobile Suit Gundam (AKA Gundam 0079), released in 1979 and set in UC 0079
The first series in the franchise and introduces the concept of “Gundam”, which is a high performance prototype mobile weapon. Mobile Suit Gundam follows the war of independence waged by the Principality of Zeon, which is formed from space colonies, against the Earth Federation.
Amuro Ray, a young mechanic who becomes the pilot of the titular mobile suit RX 78-2 Gundam following an attack by Zeon forces on Side 7, the space colony he was living in. Subsequently, the Gundam, along with Amuro, was added to the ship White Base, so that the Gundam can be brought to Earth. During the ship’s journey from Side 7, Amuro comes into constant conflict with Char Aznable, the commanding officer of the Zeon forces pursuing White Base and the Gundam. After reaching, Amuro and the crew of the White Base joined in a number of operations against Zeon forces in North America and Europe. Upon returning to space, the Earth Federation launches an attack on the Zeon space fortress of A Baoa Qu, and during this battle, Amuro and Char faces off for the last time in the series.
While the series itself was cancelled during its initial run, the franchise saw a significant rise in popularity following the release of Bandai’s Gunpla models as well as reruns and its theatrical compilations. So much so that Sunrise opted to produce a sequel titled Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam.
2) Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, released in 1985 and set in UC 0087-UC 0088
A direct sequel of Mobile Suit Gundam, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam occurs 7 years after the conclusion of the One Year War. Zeta Gundam is significant in that it features a grayer morality than the original, and this gray morality serves as the basis for much of the later Gundam series.
After the One Year War, the Earth Federation established the Titans, an elite unit tasked with the elimination of remaining Zeon forces. However, the Titans became overzealous and started to resort to brutal methods to achieve their objectives, and their targets become anyone who tries to fight for equal rights for space citizens. The Anti-Earth Union Group (AEUG) was formed to combat the Titans, notably including Bright Noa, the former captain of the White Base, and the engimatic Quattro Bajeena.
Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam focuses on Kamille Bidan, a civilian who joins the AEUG and becomes Quattro’s student. Subsequently, Amuro Ray also opts to join the AEUG and assists them in a variety of missions. The conflict between AEUG and the Titans continued to escalate as the series progressed, even more so after Zeon remnants, led by Haman Karn, also joined in the conflict.
The series is notable for being the first Gundam to be affected by Yoshiyuki Tomino’s “Kill ‘Em All” tendencies, evidenced by the high death rate in the series, particularly in the last 10 episodes. Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam was highly popular in Japan, and is still currently the highest rated Gundam series. More importantly, Zeta Gundam established themes and plot points, such as the blurred lines of war, that continues to influence every Gundam series released to the present day.
3) Mobile Suit Double Zeta Gundam (Gundam ZZ), released in 1986, set in UC 0088-0089
Gundam ZZ takes place immediately after the events of Zeta, and continues to follow the AEUG’s fight against Haman Karn and her Neo Zeon forces. Bright Noa recruits a group of junk collectors to pilot the mobile suits abroad his ship, the Argama and these collectors became known as the Gundam team. The protagonist of the series is Judau Ashta, who is a member of the team, and was given Kamille’s old Zeta Gundam to pilot, before upgrading to the titular Double Zeta (ZZ) Gundam. The series is notable as starting out on a much lighter note, partly due to the Yoshiyuki Tomino’s dissatisfaction with the bleak nature of Zeta. However, as the series progressed and the conflict with Neo-Zeon escalated, the series shifted to back to a more serious tone, though never quite reaching the bleak nature of Zeta Gundam.
ZZ Gundam also holds a every interesting spot in both the fandom and the continuity of the franchise. In terms of the fandom, the series represents a disconnect between some of the hardcore fans and the producers of the show. The hardcore fans generally frowns upon the series both for its upbeat approach and the eventual mood whiplash. The produces, especially Tomino, wanted to reestablish the franchise as a show geared more towards children. Another interesting point of the series is its position in the franchise continuity. This problem arouse mainly due to the release of Zeta Gundam: A New Translation, which featured an updated ending of Zeta Gundam that would have effectively retconned ZZ. Tomino has only said that the New Translation is a re-imagining of Zeta, and many fans take this to mean that the TV version of Zeta is canon, but this issue is still a point of contention among the fans of the franchise.
4) Mobile Suit Victory Gundam, released in 1993, set in UC 153
Victory Gundam is set after the conflicts of Mobile Suit Gundam F91 (covered in the movie section), and takes place during the invasion of Earth by the Zanscare Empire. While the Earth Federation was still the ruling power of much of the solar system, it was considerably weakened due to economic depression and civil wars. Due to this, a civilian militia called League Militaire was established to defend Earth. In the forefront of this resistance is 13 year old Uso Ewin, who pilots the Victory Gundam, which is League Militaire’s frontline Mobile Suit. The series is extremely brutal, due to Tomino being in one of his depressive periods. Thus, Uso was profoundly affected by both the deaths he saw during the war as well as the sacrifices made by his comrades in order to protect him.
Due to its brutal nature, the series is viewed as the darkest of the Universal Century series , and is often considered with Mobile Suit Gundam Seed to be the most brutal Gundam series of all time. The series is also known for its production issues, such as airing of the planned fourth episode, which featured the titular Victory Gundam for the first time, as episode one due to pressures from the show’s sponsors. The reason was that Sunrise wanted to address the declining popularity of Gundam at the time by making the show more action packed and Bandai wanted to increase sales of the Gunpla models, which had lagging.
Tomino has said that he intended to kill the franchise with the brutality of Victory Gundam because of his depression and the pressure from sponsors and the studio. He succeeded in killing off the Universal Century as the central focus of the Gundam universe, as the sales and ratings of Victory Gundam were mediocre at best. This resulted in Sunrise cancelling the next UC Gundam series and instead relaunching the franchise into alternate universes by the mid 1990s.
Relevant UC OVAs and Movies:
1) Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, set in UC0068 and UC0079
This series retells the story of Gundam 0079 as well as providing an in-depth look at the history of the Principality of Zeon and a look at the background of Char Aznable. The series is written by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, who was an original character designer in Mobile Suit Gundam. The portions of the series that follows the plot of 0079 were mostly faithful, except for certain details that were changed. In addition, the manga also goes in depth about the formation of Zeon and how the Zabi family took power. In addition, the manga also goes into detail on the research into mobile suits, the establishment of the Side 7 colonies as well as how the character of Char Aznable was came into existence.
2) Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team, set in UC0079, released in 1995
Set during the One Year War of Gundam 0079, this OVA series examines a localized guerilla conflict between the Earth Federation and Zeon in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The Federation unit, known as the 08th MS team, is captained by Shiro Yamada, has to deal with the adverse conditions of the jungles, the hostile locales as well as the opposing Zeon forces. This series is unique to the franchise in that it is much more localized, and the Gundams themselves are not superweapons, but rather just powerful military tools that needs resource and time consuming maintenance. Unlike prior entries into the franchise, the series is not focused on the Gundams, but rather on the actions of the squad, the tactics related to various missions, the various personal struggles of the squad members, as well as the the relationship between Shiro and the Zeon pilot Aina Sahalin.
3) Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, set in UC 0080, released in 1989
The first entry in the franchise not directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, War in the Pocket was produced to commemorate the franchise’s tenth anniversary. The series is notable for not focusing on the parties involved in conflict, but rather on the personal experience of eleven year old Alfred Izuruha. While there is mobile suit combat, War in the Pocket mostly shows how Alfred befriended a Zeon pilot and him learning about the just how painful war can be. Interestingly, the series also provides an explanation as to why Amuro Ray did not get a midseason upgrade for his mobile suit in Gundam 0079, making him the only Gundam protagonist not to get one in an entire series.
4) Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, set in UC 0083, released in 1991
The series focused on a team of Earth Federation soldiers who were trying to retrieve a Gundam that was stolen by Zeon forces, led by Anavel Gato, and was set between Mobile Suit Gundam and Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. It focuses on Kou Uraki, who is a member of the retrieval team and his conflicts with Gato, who has started to pilot the stolen Gundam. Gato and his forces initiated Operation Stardust, a plan to undermine the authority of the Earth Federation and start a new rebellion. The series helps bridge the gap between Mobile Suit Gundam and Zeta by showing how Zeon aggression led to the creation of the Titans organization that was the one of the primary antagonists in Zeta Gundam. In addition, Operation Stardust also inspired attempts to revive the Zeon movement, demonstrated by three Neo Zeon wars from UC 0088 to UC 0096.
5) Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, set in 0093, released in 1988
The first full length film in the franchise, Char’s Counterattack is the culmination of the main Universal Century saga which started in Gundam 0079, marking both the end of the Earth Federation/Zeon tensions and shows the climax of Amuro Ray and Char Aznable’s rivalry
5 years after the end of Zeta Gundam, Char leads a revived Neo-Zeon movement with the goal of pushing for massive migration of humans into space, as he believes this will force humanity to evolve. An elite Earth Federation task force, Londo Bell, was assigned to eliminate this threat, and among its members were veterans Bright Noa and Amuro Ray. In order to facilitate the migration of humans into space, Char plans to drop the asterioid Axis onto Earth. At the final battle on Axis, Amuro and Char finally settle their rivalry once and for all.
As per Tomino’s pattern during the late 1980s, there is a large number of named characters that are killed, as Tomino wanted to end the saga of Amuro and relaunch the franchise with new characters and story arcs, which he attempted to do in Mobile Suit Gundam F91 and Victory Gundam.
7) Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, set in UC 0096, released from 2010 to 2014
A 7 episode OVA based on a series of novels, Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn starts by examining both the establishment of the Earth Federation and the UC calendar, as well as the Laplace incident, which caused the rift between Earth and space residents. The main story was set in UC 0096 and follows the story of Bannagher Links, whose life was changed when he came into contact with the Unicorn Gundam as well as the intrigues related to the location of Laplace’s Box, and its contents was rumored to be able to destroy the Earth Federation. In the series, Bannagher has several skirmishes with Neo-Zeon remnants called ‘Sleeves’.
In terms of the franchise, Unicorn ties up loose plot points from Char’s Counterattack, and wraps up the Zeon chapter of the UC calendar. While originally released as OVAs, the series has been edited and released as an anime series under the title Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn RE:0096.
8) Mobile Suit Gundam F91, set in UC, released in 1991
Mobile Suit Gundam F91 was Yoshiyuki Tomino’s attempt at launching a new Gundam saga and was set 30 years after Char’s Counterattack. The series was originally planned as a full-length series, but hit production delays and the project was eventually dropped and any existing material was condensed into a feature film.
Prior to F91, The Earth Federation built space colonies to accommodate the growing population of Earth. The Crossbone Vanguard Militia attempted to conquer these colonies in order to establish an aristocracy known as ‘Cosmo Babylonia’. The events of the series revolves around Seabook Arno and Cecily Fairchild, space colonists who were caught up in the conflict between the Earth Federation and the Militia. Driven by the circumstances, Seabook was forced into the cockpit of the Gundam F91 to protect the colony and Cecily.
As the series was initially planned as a 50 episode series, a large amount of the plot was cut, but subsequent novels and manga fleshed out the series in much more detail.